“Abstractions are often useful and endlessly fascinating, but they can also be destructive.”
Abstractions are simple representations of much more complex ideas or systems; for example, maps are an abstraction of land. A democratically elected government is an abstraction of the will of the citizens. Jesus was said to be an abstraction of God. App icons are abstractions of the programs on a smartphone, and the notorious ‘spinning beach ball of death’ is an abstraction of a computer’s inability to process assigned tasks. Emojis have become abstractions of the written word and a new kind of language in their own right that confuses most older people but has reinvigorated younger people’s use of creative communication.
Once you start looking for abstractions, you see them everywhere. They work like a kind of shorthand that humans desperately need in life because we don’t necessarily have the time, intelligence or desire to understand all the information in any given situation. Abstractions help save lives. Most modern emergency wards immediately hook a new patient up to an electrocardiogram to create a dashboard of their physical health. The machine provides only the vital statistics, thereby enabling doctors to identify and respond quickly to life-threatening circumstances.
Abstractions also abound in our social lives, but they’re less likely to represent the truth like an electrocardiogram. Take Facebook, for instance; in principle, it is an abstraction of our friendships but in reality we have much smaller social circles. Instagram is more likely to be an abstraction of our ideal self than our actual self. We show the version of us that we want the world to believe is real: the us that is constantly relaxing, watching the sun set, about to eat a photogenic meal or gazing out over the wing of a plane.
Abstractions are often useful and endlessly fascinating, but they can also be destructive. They are all created by ‘designers’ in the loosest possible sense of the word, which is to say, anyone who intentionally organises information with an outcome in mind. These designers often do a bad job of compressing a complex idea or system into a simple expression, and the outcomes are horrific.
Abstractions can be imprecise or outright incorrect: poorly drawn maps have led to many border wars between countries and bickering between neighbours. Their inaccuracy has cost many lives. Modern geopolitical maps are often abstractions of a colonial idea of territory but fail to represent where and how indigenous peoples identify as belonging. Car and plane dashboards, which are abstractions of the working of an engine, have been responsible for many of the most catastrophic events in modern travel.
Social or cultural abstractions can oversimplify real life and marginalise people: the institution of marriage, which is an abstraction of commitment, has excluded same-sex partners in many countries for years, denying the legitimacy of deeply caring relationships and demonstrating a lack of respect for LGBT people.
Some abstractions survive past their use-by date. For example, the bathroom icons distinguishing only male and female are no longer fit for purpose in a world where gender now sits on a spectrum, and yet they’ve been used everywhere for so long that the sheer practicality of swapping out the abstraction can become a barrier to wider acceptance. Once an abstraction sets in it can be very hard to debunk.
“Once an abstraction sets in, it can be very hard to debunk.”
If ever there was a complex system, it is a city, and even the most disorganised urban centres still rely heavily on abstractions, particularly to coordinate growth. In local government offices there are all kinds of regulations and maps with brightly coloured zones that create an abstraction of how a city should be used. City planners have categories like ‘commercial’ and ‘residential’ to dictate what types of buildings and activities are allowed in defined areas. When they provide permission for a particular use, they are also denying permission for other kinds of uses… And so the city grows.
We have no guarantee that these city planners have recently been into the areas over which they preside. It is highly likely that they rely on their abstractions of how the city should be used, rather than the reality of how it is used. Why walk the street and talk to people when an easily digestible abstraction is only a mouse click away? If city planners were to spend more time out of the office and on the ground, they could witness life flourishing in unexpected ways. For example, they might see that a Central Business District can be a great place to live and not just work, or that large buildings need to be mixed-use to be anything other than boring. The worst parts of growing cities are often radically oversimplified and one-dimensional – we have abstractions to thank for that.
In our complex world, abstractions are entirely necessary but problematic. We need to be careful using them as individuals, watching out for the ones that mischaracterise or underrepresent important elements. We should bravely call out when we see that the way people are trying to understand an issue is not right. And, of course, we need to be very careful designing abstractions. We can start by recognising their power. If done well, abstractions can lead a movement: by simply acknowledging that something exists, however marginal, we can start a pathway to acceptance. Then we can continue carefully to draw focus on the essential information and avoid the pitfalls of oversimplifying life, which is so incredible because of complexity and diversity. Albert Einstein inadvertently wrote the perfect brief for anyone designing an abstraction when he said: “make everything as simple as it can be, but not simpler”.
Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005 he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings an humanistic understanding and casual style to property development. ‘Abstractions’ is an excerpt from his forthcoming book.